Which are better? Private or public schools? How do they compare? It's a question we parents ask often as we consider sending our children to private school.
Any serious discussion of the issue has to consider the following factors:
- class size
- administrative support
Many public school facilities are impressive; others are mediocre. The same is true of private schools. In the public school system, the twin engines of political support and economic revenue base are critical.
In private schools the ability to attract endowments and other forms of financial support are just as critical. Private school facilities reflect the success of the school's development team and that of the school to continue to generate alumni support. Some private K-12 schools have facilities and amenities which surpass those found at many colleges and universities. Hotchkiss and Andover, for example, have libraries and athletic facilities on a par with those at Brown and Cornell. They also offer academic and sports programs which make full use of all those resources. It is hard to find comparable facilities in the public sector. They are few and far between.
Public schools also reflect the economic realities of their location. Wealthy suburban schools will have more amenities than inner city schools as a rule. Think Greenwich, Connecticut versus Detroit, Michigan, for example. So, who has the edge? Let's call it a draw, all things considered.
According to the NCES report Private Schools: A Brief Portrait private schools win out on this issue. Why? Most private schools have small class sizes. One of the key points of private education is individual attention. You need student to teacher ratios of 15:1 or better to achieve that goal of individual attention.
On the other hand a public system has to take almost anyone who lives within its boundaries. In public schools you will generally find much larger class sizes, sometimes exceeding 35-40 students in some inner city schools. At that point teaching rapidly degenerates into babysitting.
Public sector teachers are generally better paid. Naturally compensation varies widely depending on the local economic situation. Put another way, it's cheaper living in Duluth, Minnesota than it is in San Francisco. Unfortunately low starting salaries and small annual salary increases result in low teacher retention in many public school districts. Public sector benefits have historically been excellent; however, health and pension costs have risen so dramatically since 2000 that public educators will be forced to pay or pay more for their benefits.
Private school compensation tends to be somewhat lower than public. Again, much depends on the school and its financial resources. One private school benefit found especially in boarding schools is housing and meals. Private school pension schemes vary widely. Many schools use major pension providers such as TIAA-CREF
Both public and private schools require their teachers to be credentialed. This usually means a degree and a teaching certificate. Private schools tend to hire teachers with advanced degrees in their subject over teachers who have an education degree. Put another way, a private school hiring a Spanish teacher will want that teacher to have a degree in Spanish language and literature as opposed to an education degree with a minor in Spanish.
Since local property taxes support the bulk of public education, the annual school budget exercise is a serious fiscal and political business. In poor communities or communities which have many voters living on fixed incomes, there is precious little room to respond to budget requests within the framework of projected tax revenue. Grants from foundations and the business community are essential to creative funding.
Private schools on the other hand can raise tuition, and they also can raise significant amounts of money from a variety of development activities, including annual appeals, cultivation of alumni and alumnae, and solicitation of grants from foundations and corporations. The strong allegiance to private schools by their alumni makes the chances of fund-raising success a real possibility in most cases.
The bigger the bureaucracy, the harder it is to get decisions made at all, much less get them made quickly.The public education system is notorious for having antiquated work rules and bloated bureaucracies. This is as a result of union contracts and host of political considerations.
Private schools on the other hand generally have a lean management structure. Every dollar spent has to come from operating income and endowment income. Those resources are finite. The other difference is that private schools rarely have teacher unions to deal with.
So, who comes out on top? Public schools or private schools? As you can see, there are no clear-cut answers or conclusions. Public schools have their advantages and disadvantages. Private schools offer an alternative. Which works best for you? That's the real question which you have to answer.